Twenty two years and 11 albums into their career, Low are confronting the unavoidable reality that they are still going. Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, the world’s coolest Mormons do not, they admit, do long-term planning. Nevertheless, by taking it one album at a time they have outlasted most of their contemporaries. In their new release, Ones and Sixes, the lyrics constantly return to themes of getting on and getting by, despite the strains, the stresses and the misunderstandings; the high throws and the low throws even out. The dividing line between Parker and Sparhawk’s real marriage and their musical world is fuzzy, but the theme is unflinching introspection and the result is both unassuming and dramatic.
Despite their long history, Low have, to some extent, slipped beneath the radar. Their minimal musical approach sounded, right from the start, like music beyond time and fashion. However, their unmistakable template – Mimi and Alan’s eerie, exquisite harmonies counterpointed by droning guitar and pounding tom-toms – means that any new musical element seems seismic. Keyboards, banjos, and unexpected effects have found their way into the music, and recent albums have developed their own take on the Low sound. The Invisible Way (2013) was brooding and almost acoustic at times, its lyrics full of barbed digs. Before that, C’mon (2011), with a sardonically upbeat pop title, featured Neil Young-esque ragged guitar distortion and songs full of wide spaces. On Ones and Sixes the sound is part classic, part new model Low, with the production turned up several notches beyond anything previously attempted.
Songs such as first track, ‘Gentle’, surprise with crunching electro beats that are most un-slowcore. Even Parker’s trademark vocal has been given the treatment, fading, echoing and sliding from speaker to speaker. Single ‘No Comprende’ uses equally pounding electronic percussion, bass beats exploding like depth charges under Sparhawk’s crooning vocal combing relationship miscommunication with household annoyances (“You can't just throw it in the trailer/You've got to stack it so it's stable”). Elsewhere the themes are developed. ‘Lies’, which starts like a thriller - “When they found you on the edge of the road / You had a pistol underneath your coat” – ends as an extended domestic. The centrepiece is ‘What Part of Me Don’t You Know’ with cymbals and keyboards accentuating the tension as Mimi and Alan sing, “What part of me don’t you own?” in perfect harmony. It sounds as though there is one singer but two voices simultaneously. And they get to let their hair down on ‘Landslide’, nearly ten minutes of lyric-free vocalising over rumbling, floor-shaking bass.
Ones and Sixes is a strong album, grabbing its place immediately in the Low canon. Tracks are almost all consistently strong and, although the updated production style may not appeal to all, the songs hit hard. Parker and Sparhawk’s writing is open and touching, and the final track ‘DJ’, with its conclusion that, “We find each other on the edge”, leaves us in no doubt about the strength of their personal and musical partnership.